Why Women Directors Are Thriving on Television

Television trusts women directors – and is all the better for it.
Reed Morano Handmaid
By  · Published on February 20th, 2018

Television trusts women directors – and is all the better for it.

Directing is a notoriously male-dominated facet of filmmaking. In the Oscars’ 90 year history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one woman has won. Though 2017 was marked by calls for more women behind the camera and strides towards a more equitable Hollywood (Patty JenkinsWonder Woman and Greta Gerwig’s director nom for Lady Bird, for example), only 8% of last year’s highest grossing films were helmed by women directors.

Television, however, tells a very different story. In the 2016-2017 season, women directed more episodes of television than ever. In a single year, the number of individual women directors employed in episodic television grew a whopping 45%, and an unprecedented 23% of television episodes were helmed by women. These women taking over television come from varied creative and professional backgrounds. Many are film directors by trade, often boasting impressive bodies of work and Academy Awards. Others are rising talents, able to break into television with the help of crucial equity initiatives.

The migration of accomplished film directors to television has been underway for the past decade. Though the small screen was once stigmatized as the plebeian, unsophisticated companion to film, prestige TV has completely reinvented the medium’s reputation. Television’s serial format, creative freedom, and newfound esteem have enticed many well-known directors, like David Fincher (House of Cards, Mindhunter), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick, Mosaic), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), and Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Maniac).

The medium, however, also provides unique opportunities to established woman directors who struggle to land film projects worthy of their talent and skill set. Jane Campion, who directed the Oscar-winning The Piano, recently helmed the acclaimed mystery series Top of the Lake, and her move to television reinvigorated her artistic vision when the film landscape began to bore her: “In television, there is no concern about politeness or pleasing the audience. It feels like creative freedom,” she says. “The really clever people used to do film. Now the really clever people do television.”

Danish director Susanne Bier (who helmed the Oscar-winning In A Better World) also recently made the switch to television, directing the spy thriller mini-series The Night Manager. She credits the pressure to stand out in a crowded television landscape as motivational for producers to seek out new, non-traditional talent, and favors that “the market logic of big-budget television dictates that producers are required to think more adventurously and take more risks.”

Women directors find television to be a welcoming platform when film fails them. Karyn Kusama, who experienced box office flops with Æon Flux, and Jennifer’s Body, found prestige television to be welcoming when film relegated her to “Movie Jail,” which women are relegated to with far more frequency than men. When women’s films flop, they find it far more difficult to secure other directorial opportunities than when men flop; Hollywood’s collective memory is, unfortunately, woefully gendered. Unable to make the films she wanted to, she moved into television, finding a home for her distinct vision. Television provided her the perfect platform to hone and showcase her directorial skills, doing excellent work on critically-acclaimed shows like The Man in the High Castle, Billions, and Halt and Catch Fire.

Much of the increased number of women directors on television can also be attributed to the necessary work of equity initiatives within the industry. Last year, Ryan Murphy launched the Half Initiative, which aims to create more opportunities in television for women and minorities behind the camera. Since its inception, half of the directors on FX series have been women or minorities (up from 12% in 2015) and 60% of directorial positions on Murphy’s own shows have been filled by women.

NBC President Jennifer Salke also recently launched the network’s Female Forward Initiative, which provides women directors opportunities to train, direct, and gain at least one directing credit. Partnering with the legendary television director Lesli Linka Glatter (who boasts 65 directing credits, including Homeland, Mad Men, Ray Donovan, and House), Salke hopes to achieve gender parity among the network’s slate of directors, adding ten women to the directing roster every year.

Ava Duvernay has also created opportunities on television, hiring only women directors for both seasons of her show Queen Sugar, which airs on Oprah’s OWN network. The sheer volume of television shows and networks provides the ideal opportunity for women directors. New series and episodes are created at a much more rapid rate than films, creating constant openings for directors and, thus, more slots for women to fill. Steph Green, who has directed episodes of “Bates Motel” and “Luke Cage” sees television’s abundance as the key to women’s inroads: “What’s empowering in television right now is that there’s opportunity and we’re grabbing it.”

Though television can be a creative haven for disgruntled women film directors, it can also serve as a platform to hone and showcase directorial skills for film producers; for some women directors, television can be a stepping stone into film. Reed Morano, who recently took home the Emmy for Directing for a Drama Series, had a prolific career as a cinematographer before directing episodes for Half and Catch Fire, Billions, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Now she’s got three films lined up (including  I Think We’re Alone Now, which premiered at Sundance) and is taking secret meetings with Kathleen Kennedy. Rachel Lee Goldenberg, who has helmed episodes of the Mindy Project and Man Seeking Woman, was recently tapped to direct a musical adaptation of the 1983 rom-com Valley Girl.

Director Mimi Leder’s body of work encapsulates the fluid movement between film and television that has shaped the careers of countless women directors. The first woman to graduate the AFI Conservatory, Leder helmed large-scale films like Deep Impact, which boasted the biggest opening weekend ever for a movie directed by a woman. But, like Karyn Kusama, the failure of Leder’s Pay It Forward landed her in Movie Jail, and she was shut out from making more films. On television, Leder found “there’s a lot more opportunity for women – especially behind the scenes.” After winning an Emmy for her work on ER, Leder went on to helm 10 incredible episodes of HBO’s The Leftovers, indelibly shaping the series into one of television’s greatest dramas. The opportunity to showcase her skillset has provided her a bridge back into film: Leder was tapped to direct the Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On the Basis of Sex.

It’s no surprise that with its promising collection of women directors, television is telling women’s stories better than film. Reed Morano’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar, and Mimi Leder’s The Leftovers all feature the kind of complex women protagonists that rarely grace the silver screen. The correlation is clear: the more women we have behind the camera, the better women-centric stories we get on screen. Film can easily follow suit: willingness to hire new talent, the abolishment of Movie Jail, and the pursuit of equity initiatives could all help to multiply the number of women behind the camera exponentially. Until then, television will be a haven for women directors, established and budding alike – and the TV landscape will be all the better for it.

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Writer, college student, television connoisseur.